Monster, Machine, Human, Brother

This Monstrous Thing, by Mackenzi Lee, (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins), 384 pages, release date 22 September, 2015

This Monstrous Thing is a steampunk retelling of the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Set in the eighteen-teens, it depicts a Europe in which prosthetic limbs and organs have been invented, but making and using them is seen as usurping God’s role as creator. The public consensus is that anyone making or making use of these artificial body parts is no longer human.

Alasdair Finch is one of the “Shadow Boys”: the engineers building and maintaining these prosthetics. He is, in fact, something of a prodigy and has secretly brought his brother Oliver back to life after Oliver’s death falling from Geneva’s great clocktower. Alasdair’s partner in this work is none other than Mary Shelley, who lives with the already married Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friend Lord Byron in a Geneva mansion.

Like the book that inspired it, This Monstrous Thing confronts readers with the question of what it means to be human—and also with questions of social stratification, prejudice, opportunity, learning, and violence. In some ways these questions resonate particularly well in this setting, since modern-day readers are accustomed to prosthetics. What the book’s society finds abnormal and threatening is commonplace for us.

Like Shelley, Lee has a knack for creating complex characters, neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Their actions are driven by ambition and fear, as well as by love. Alasdair’s reanimating of his brother may be a great humanitarian undertaking or a hideously selfish project. Mary Shelley uses the brothers as a way of recapturing her pre-Shelley youthful boldness and isn’t completely honest with them about her own identity and actions. The reanimated Oliver is beastly, with little of his human self remaining; he may present a treat to the lives and safety of others as long as he lives.

Ostensibly, This Monstrous Thing is a young adult novel, aimed at middle and high school readers, but its richness and prose style make it rewarding reading for adults as well—particularly adult familiar with Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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